Russia recriminalizes libel–Putin says that it will help scientists

I wasn’t surprised to see recently that Russia has recriminalized libel, raising the penalty for it by orders of magnitude (from $100 to $160,000).  Fortunately, though, there is still no penalty of imprisonment for the offense.

What surprised me was Russian President Putin’s statement that the law will be of benefit to scientists.  So I started thinking (despite the advice of my doctors): do legitimate scientists ever sue people for libel?  If so, is it a good idea for scientists to use libel law to protect reputation?

I could not remember an instance of a legitimate scientist suing someone for libel.  A quick search found a big case from a couple of years ago, when a Canadian climate scientist sued a paper and an author for libel.  But I still think it’s unusual (is that just my bias speaking?).

Indeed, libel laws are usually used by hucksters masquerading as legitimate scientists in an attempt to silence legitimate scientists (think British Chiropractic Association and Andrew Wakefield).

In order for science to work and human knowledge to advance, scientists need to be free to criticize each other without fear of lawsuits from other scientists.   That’s why groups like Sense About Science are working to keep libel laws out of science.

What really puzzled me about Putin’s statements, though, was his assurance that ““It is by a definition that a person involved in politics is unlikely to go to a court to accuse someone of libel.”  Of course!  And to think that critics of the new law have said that the law is intended to silence opposition to the government.   Really, when was the last time Russian politicians used the force of law to silence an opponent?  (And Tuesday doesn’t count.)


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6 responses to “Russia recriminalizes libel–Putin says that it will help scientists

  1. James T. Todd

    Scientist Ronald Hutchinson sued Senator William Proxmire for libel–for ridiculing his research on aggression and stress with a “Golden Fleece” award–and prevailed in the Supreme Court. Proxmire eventually settled.

    James T. Todd, Ph.D.

    • Thanks, Dr. Todd! I guess a lawsuit by a scientist once every 30 years or so isn’t bad. (I’m sure there are more, many of which may not have made it far enough to be found easily now.)

      • James T. Todd

        You’re welcome. The case was a big deal, given that a scientist was taking on a powerful senator who was famous for ridiculing people with his awards. As for the suits, who knows, I might be next–on the receiving end. There’s an article in the journal Disabilities Studies Quarterly last year that accuses me, personally, of cross-burner-style “hate speech” and “slander*” for questioning the validity of “facilitated communication.” I’ve not been sued, but the article is obviously intended to instigate. Of course, it will be more of the “hucksters” suing the scientist–except the FC people have academic appointments and are, formally at least, legitimate.


        *The author doesn’t know the difference between libel and slander.

  2. =8)-DX

    Isn’t it odd that such a large country as Russia is really only a fledgeling democracy? It’d be interesting to see a comparison of libel cases by and against scientists (frequency, costs, outcomes).

  3. There is a rabid anti-vaxer who wrote a lengthy email to my employers in which he accuses me of all sorts of things – from stalking him to profiting from vaccines – and calls for my immediate dismissal. I ran it by a legal expert and we agreed that we had a good case for at least a kind letter asking him to stop it and never do it again. But, after much discussion with my wife, friends, and colleagues, we decided against any kind of engagement. It only allows for him to play the martyr and for a waste of time and resources on my part. If he keeps it up, it only provides more evidence of the delusional world in which he apparently lives.

    On the other hand, if any of his rants cost me my job or a job, or otherwise hurt those I love and care for, then, yes, I’d ask for relief from the courts. In the meantime, consider the source.

  4. WyrdWyrd

    “Indeed, libel laws are usually used by hucksters masquerading as legitimate scientists in an attempt to silence legitimate scientists”

    Yeah, does Russia still have some problem with their teaching of biology where they reject evolution? I had heard once that, that was a problem there.

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